By ALEXANDER COCKBURN
The presidential campaign plummeted into imbecilic tedium last night in Nashville as Barack Obama and John McCain faced off in the second debate. The encounter took place against the vivid backdrop of economic catastrophe, the obvious failure of the $700 billion bailout to turn the tide, Tuesday's market averages hurtling into the abyss, a paralyzing credit freeze, the prospect of savage deflation and prolonged world depression.
Scant intimations of these disasters penetrated the walls of the Belmont University auditorium, where the Gallup polling organization had mustered a crowd of "independents", people canny enough to claim to Gallup's emissaries that they hadn’t yet made up their minds. The affair was billed as a "Town Hall Meeting", meaning only that the candidates were permitted to pace about, or walk up to their carefully selected, ethnically and sexually balanced interlocutors in the crowd and praise them for the acuity of their questions.
It was as though the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, even though apprised that fire and brimstone had already consumed substantial portions of their cities, with prospective destruction of the remnant, spent a vainglorious 90 minutes vying with each other in proclaiming the fundamental soundness of their economy and the greatness of their civilization.
McCain said he had a plan. He would require his Treasury Secretary to bail out beleaguered homeowners. Obama said he'd do the same. It's a sensible idea. A few days earlier both men had voted on a bankers' bailout that explicitly does not rescue homeowners but exposes the defaulters to foreclosures superintended by the Treasury. The testy and self-important moderator, Tom Brokaw, could have swiftly asked them about this but he didn't.
McCain said he'd consider a spending freeze. Obama could have asked him whether this would include a freeze on the war in Iraq, which has so far cost nearly a trillion dollars. He did finally circle around to this matter, but way too late and much too feebly. In a week when only the government stands between Americans and ruin, one would have thought McCain's Reaganesque attacks on government could have drawn telling barbs from Obama. The auditorium had plenty of veterans who, like McCain, have access to hospitals run by the Veterans' Administration. Obama declined the opportunity.
As a debater Obama is pitifully slow on his feet. This is not a time when any Republican candidate wants to be reminded that a cause dear to President Bush's heart was Social Security "reform", shorthand for handing over peoples' pensions, now held in government accounts, to Wall Street. Yet when McCain agreed with Brokaw that America's Social Security system needs "reform", Obama promptly accepted the faulty premise that the Social Security system is in crisis. Why didn't he point out that had privatization been enacted, millions would have already seen the monthly checks standing between them and utter destitution go down the tubes, destroyed by the sharks at now bankrupt institutions like Lehman Bros?
Obama is too timid even to invoke the greatest hero in the Democrats' pantheon, Franklin Roosevelt. If ever there was a moment to quote FDR, to pledge a new, New Deal it is surely now.
The discussion of foreign affairs was even worse, with the added burden of being mostly repetitions of the first debate in Oxford, Mississippi. McCain invoked the uniqueness of America and its mission to bring freedom and light to the rest of the planet. Obama solemnly agreed. Neither man saw fit to address the fact that America is only able to shoulder these imperial burdens because China has been prepared to finance the war in Iraq. The difficult word "China" passed no one's lips. Nor did the issue of an immense and unsustainable Pentagon budget intrude, nor the thousand or so US military bases overseas.
Both men once again bravely declared they would not allow another Holocaust to happen. Both pledged constancy to Israel. Both men said that an Iran with nuclear weapons was unacceptable. Brokaw could have asked them for their reactions to outgoing Israeli prime minister Olmert's stunning disclosure in an interview with the Hebrew-language newspaper Yediot Aharonot that he thinks Israel is on a totally misguided course, should " actually withdraw from almost all the territories, if not from all the territories", agree to the division of Jerusalem and give Syria back the Golan Heights.
Brokaw didn't, though he did raise the recent British assessments from Kabul saying the West's war is lost. This elicited scant reaction from Obama who continued to pledge higher US troops levels in Afghanistan plus forays into Pakistan, whatever the opinion of Pakistan's government might be. Will anyone ask the Democratic candidate how he feels about stoking up a replication of the Iraq disaster, with a possible war between nuclear Pakistan and nuclear India as lagniappe? The dawn of an Obama administration is now scheduled, on the candidate's pledges, to see escalation of a doomed and pointless war in Afghanistan and perhaps also the assassination of Karzai, now square in Uncle Sam's sights as a failure and probably scheduled for assassination. There's the heritage of JFK and Vietnam for you. It's back to 1963.
Asked if Russia was evil, just like the Soviet Union in Ronald Reagan's eyes, Obama said yes, McCain "maybe". Trade? Latin America? Africa? Europe? Nothing from either man, though they both agreed that they would flout the UN at will.
Of the two performances, Obama's was the more appalling since he is meant to be the candidate of change and new ideas. He has no detectable commitment to change and no new ideas. Neither does McCain. Yet the post-debate panelists mostly claimed the Town Hall Meeting an absorbing affair, rich in content. We have one more debate, in which McCain will have another chance to reduce Obama's commanding lead, something he failed to do last night, even though it now seems Sarah Palin did slow McCain's slump with her performance last week. McCain and Palin are trying to get traction by slurring Obama for association with Bill Ayers, a leader of the the bomb-throwing antiwar Weathermen in the 60s. Obama was eight when they threw the bombs. It doesn't seem a productive line of attack for McCain and Palin, particularly when many Americans wouldn't mind blowing up Wall St themselves.
Alexander Cockburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org